Signs that make me laugh: “Cats, Eye Fashion”

I’ve come up with three possible interpretations of this sign.

a) this store sells an assortment of cats and eye glasses (as the punctuation would seem to indicate)

b) this store sells tiny eye glasses designed for cats (“Cats’ Eye Fashion”)

c) this store sells fashion items that would meet with the approval of a discerning cat (“Cat’s Eye Fashion”)

Option c) seems most likely, though I never knew cats had an eye for fashion. 

And that still doesn’t explain why they are the “trusted name in retail and wholesale.”  Who buys fashion wholesale?  Certainly not cats.

La-DI$COUNT has nothing on Cats, Eye Fashion.

Eight Theses on Authority in the Church

I’ve been reflecting theologically on the problem of authority in the Church for a number of years now.  It is a notoriously difficult topic.  Disagreements over authority have been at the heart of many of the divisions in the Church since the Reformation, and questions of authority remain among the most difficult issues discussed in ecumenical dialogue.  

I became interested in the topic mostly because my own tradition (Salvation Army) has such an extremely hierarchical authority structure, and it seemed to me that its hierarchical structure was out of line with the Army’s otherwise egalitarian view of redeemed humanity.   For my master’s thesis I investigated the development of the SA’s governance, and found that it was supported by basically a utilitarian argument: there is no biblical model for church structure, therefore we can use whatever is most “effective,” and what could be more effective than organizing ourselves as an Army?    I would suggest that the argument no longer holds even on its own terms (that is, that the military structure is no longer “effective” in the way it may have been in the 1880s), and also that the presupposition on which it is built (that we are free to use whatever is most effective) is questionable at best.   If you want to know more about that I’ll be happy to send you my thesis.

The following theses are posted here as food for thought.  They certainly aren’t comprehensive, but I offer them as some basic principles to be kept in mind when thinking about questions of authority in the Church.   If you read between the lines you can see how my experiences with the Army’s structure are acting as an invisible foil for much of what I’m writing here.  However, I’ve tried to formuate these ideas into constructive propositions which should be applicable in any ecclesial context.

  1. Authority in the Church is, first and foremost, a theological issue.  As the people of God, we must always keep the Truine God in view as we think about our life together, whether we are addressing issues of faith or practice.  The theological question of authority must provide the normative specification for the practice of excercising authority, i.e., the ins and outs of how authority is exercised in the church.  We cannot bracket out theological questions in our discussion of authority, blindly adopting practices from the world of business or elsewhere, without measuring them against the character of God as the authority to which all other authorities must answer. 
  2. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the ultimate authority to which every Christian and the church as a whole must answer.  We all answer to one Lord, who is the embodiment of truly human and truly divine authority.  Christ, as truly God and truly human, shows us the character of God and the character of our new humanity as it is intended to be.  His humanity is the standard towards which we strive. However, as we are all pilgrims moving towards the realization of this fully redeemed humanity, it must be absolutely maintained that Christ’s authority is unique.  Jesus is the one head of the church, no one can presume to encroach upon his authority. In the Church, his voice must be allowed to speak in a singular way, and all nations, cultures, ideologies, and persons (including Church leaders) must place themselves under this authority.
  3. The Scriptures contain the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and as such must always be allowed to speak over and against human authorities in the Church. The Bible is the normative source of our knowledge of Christ, and the medium through which God has graciously chosen to preserve the record of his self-revealing acts in history.  As such, the Scriptures are the uniquely inspired standard against which all claims concerning Jesus Christ – and therefore all claims regarding authority in the Church – must be measured.  The place of Scripture, as the standard for Christian faith, must be maintained in any system of authority.  All human authorities in the church must be answerable to the unique witness of Scripture. 
  4. The structures of authority in the Church ought to reflect the character of the Christian life.  It is not enough that leaders themselves display lives of holiness and integrity.   The structures and processes of authority should also be marked off as different from the authority structures and processes of the world.   Authority structures are not “neutral” tools that can be used for either good or evil ends, depending on the persons who are using them.  The structures themselves should foster and reflect the new life of the Spirit that is ours through Christ.   To take an extreme example, a totalitarian structure demeans the dignity of the persons who are subject to its authorities, such that even a benign dictator in a totalitarian system participates in something which is a counter-witness to the gospel.  
  5. The Holy Spirit guides the whole community of believers in following Jesus Chist as Lord. The Spirit enlivens, guides, and empowers the church in every aspect of its existence.  The Spirit was sent forth from the Father to the whole people of God, so that his people might have fellowship with him, as they are united in fellowship with one another.  Through worship, prayer, and the reading of Scripture together, the people of God are taught by the Spirit.  This gives the Church a fundamentally egalitarian character, but it does not mean that individual believers can disregard the voice of others. It is not an individualistic egalitarianism, but a communal egalitarianism, in which each member is dependent upon the others.  Precisely because God speaks to all believers through the Spirit, we must be wary of ‘lone ranger’ discernments of the Spirit’s voice.  Through their common fellowship of the Spirit, believers are able to test and determine what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
  6. Human authorities in the Church are guided by that same Spirit. Those set in positions of authority in the church are guided by this same Spirit, who is given to the whole Church.  Leaders must never presume that they have special access to God’s voice.  As they are enabled by the Spirit to lead the people, they must remember that they are part of the assembly that gathers before God’s throne to hear him speak. They do have a status that sets them apart from this assembly.  This is not to say that there is no distinction whatsoever between members of the Church.  However, it must always be remembered that the distinctions are matters of function, not status.  Church leaders have specific roles to play in the life of the congregation, and not everyone can fill those roles.  But they do not have a higher status in relation to their brothers and sisters.
  7. Human authority the Church must always be open to reform. The above should establish that human authorities in the church must approach their task with an attitude of humility and a constant openness to reform.  As no leader can perfectly discern the voice of the Spirit, no leader can ever fulfil their role in isolation from the discernment and reception of the people.  Neither can any body of Christians perfectly discern and embody God’s will on this side of the eschaton.  There will always be need for reform in the Church, and authorities must bear that need in mind at all times, remaining open to challenge and critique.
  8. Human authority in the church is not an end in itself, but is ordered towards its goal – the mission of God.   If authority in the church is primarily a function and not a status, then authorities must not presume that their authority is an end in itself – that simply protecting and preserving their authority is God’s work.  Human authority in the Church is a means to an end, and the end is the furtherance of the mission of God.   This is not the same as saying we should use “any means necessary,” because the means themselves are part of the Church’s witness to the gospel.  Rather, in saying that authority in the Church is ordered toward the mission of God, we put authority in its proper place, among the people of God, serving the mission of God.  An authority which sets itself up as an end in itself can become idolatrous.

Last meal for a condemned man: I’m giving up meat for Lent

Yes, Samantha and I have decided to give up meat for Lent.   I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason I suggested it, and once it was in our heads we figured we had to go for it.  We’ve tried a few things in the past, but nothing this significant.   Once we gave up pizza, but we usually only eat pizza once a week, so it wasn’t a big deal.   Another time we gave up fast food, which seemed inconceivable  at the time, though by the end of Lent we realized that we were better off without it!

I’m not really sure what going without meat will be like.  If you don’t know, Samantha is a professional cook, and we normally eat pretty well.   We like good food, and we definitely like meat.   All the pictures on this post are of meals that we have made for ourselves at home.   I’m a barbeque guy, and I normally keep my grill going all winter long.  But the grill is going to have a break until April.    No need for steak knives, burger buns, or barbeque sauce.

From my perspective, the value of participating in some sort of fast for lent is that it keeps you mindful of Christ’s sufferings on the cross.  Not that I think my pathetic attempt at self-imposed suffering in any way participates in Christ’s sufferings; there’s no correspondence between my voluntary self denial and Christ’s suffering.   I also wouldn’t want to identify my self-punishment as connected in any way with the punishment for my sins.   Some Christians have viewed fasting and other spiritual disciplines this way, and that is part of the reason why many people are wary of fasting.  The debt for our sins has been sufficiently paid by Christ, and our self-discipline has nothing to add to his work on the cross.  But my simple lenten discipline acts as a reminder of Christ in the midst of my usual daily routine.  Every time I go to eat supper I’ll be reminded that I’m not eating meat, and I’ll be reminded that I’m doing this as a form of spiritual discipline, in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.  That kind of constant reminder can’t be anything but helpful. 

The key is that we don’t think of our fasting as a kind of “achievement,”  or become confident in the rigour of our self-discipline.  If fasting reminds me of the cross (as I think it should), then it reminds me of my sin, and pushes me to place my hope in Christ’s victory, not my own religiosity, feeble as it is.

Let us beware…of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to “establish our own righteousness,” to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts. Fasting is only a way which God hath ordained, wherein we wait for his unmerited mercy; and wherein, without any desert of ours, he hath promised freely to give us his blessing.

-John Wesley, Sermon 27, “Sermon on the Mount, VII,” §IV.2 (on Matthew 6:16-18)

I guess I am in danger of falling under the condemnation of Christ for announcing my fast so publicly!    Maybe posting on my blog about fasting is the contemporary equivalent of the pious, disfigured faces that Jesus rebuked in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:16-18).   Hopefully what I have written guards against that interpretation of my motives!

Pastors as wannabe executives

There’s a really interesting post here from Dave Fitch, entitled “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren.”   By coincidence I was reading through his chapter on “Leadership” in The Great Giveaway yesterday, which covers some similiar ground.    At first I thought he was referencing Johann Adam Möhler, and I was really intrigued…but it’s Al Mohler (less interesting to me personally, but much more representative of the contemporary church!).

The thesis in this chapter of The Great Giveaway is that the contemporary pastorate has capitulated to models of leadership found in the business world, which are fundamentally oriented toward “effectiveness” in getting results, rather than on faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  This leads to conflict resolution strategies that are high handed and autocratic.  The pastor needs to decide on a solution in order for the ministry to maintain its effectiveness (which usually means numerical growth).   If people don’t get on board, they are standing in the way of the “success” of the ministry.

I’m really connecting with what Fitch has to say, as it sums up and connects some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for some time.   Most books on Christian leadership are simply parroting the latest trendy ideas from the world of management.   What’s worse is that they throw in the odd scripture verse and “spiritualize” the ideas they’re selling, which means that the pastors who buy this stuff are taking that back to their churches believing that they’ve got divine authority on their side as they try to implement these so-called “biblical” strategies.   Not that insights from the business world have absolutely no value.  They might be helpful as tools to aid in Church leadership, if used selectively within a larger biblical and theological framework.  But they should not have the defining role that they have in the contemporary evangelical world.  So whether it’s “mission statements,” “visioning,” “strategic planning,” or more recently, “branding,” churches are embracing contemporary management techniques wholeheartedly as if they were gospel truth.   People who don’t get on board then are “problems” to be managed (at best), or (at worst) hinderances to the Spirit.   If it seems like I’m exaggerating here, I’m not.  I know a person who was told that their practical questions about church finance were “of the devil.” 

For all the diversity of contemporary Canadian society, it seems like we’re getting worse at handling conflict in our churches.  Everywhere you look there is  a local congregation that is being torn apart by some scandal or another.   Perhaps it is (as Fitch suggests in his book) connected to the individualistic outlook  of modernity, which encourages each one of us to think that we are completely autonomous centres of decision-making power, and that each one of us must arbitrate for ourselves between competing truth claims.   The locus of authority, for modernity, is the reasoning self, and the presumption is that “reason” will lead us to the truth through the exercise of our intellectual faculties.  Of course this is a bit of a charicature, but it pretty much sums up the way it works on a practical level.  And perhaps that has something to do with the interminable splintering of denominations and congregations in modern protestantism.   If we all believe that we ourselves are the final arbiters of truth in matters of dispute, then why would we back down when faced with an opposing view?

The question is whether postmodern understandings of self, truth, and knowledge move us any closer to a more healthy resolution of these problems.   It would seem that postmodern sensibilities are helpful in de-bunking the conflict-ridden assumptions of modernist epistemology, but not as helpful in offering constructive solutions.   No one person can claim a certain enough hold on truth to impose it upon an entire community.  So people of my generation are less likely to get hot under the collar about a dispute within our local church, thinking that we’re the ones who’ve got the “true” answer.  But then again, we might just stop caring at all, and become apathetic in the face of conflict, as it would seem as if no final resolution is possible.  What is needed is a normative standard to replace the reasoning autonomous self.  The standard may not be “universal” in the way that some moderns claimed “reason” was universal, but it can nevertheless be authoritative within the community for whom it is adopted.  

What I like about Fitch’s approach is that he always finds his way back to biblical depictions of church life as the normative standard.   So in the post referenced above, the answer to conflict in the Church is based on Matthew 18.   What is shocking about this model is that so few churches actually try to live this out.  We turn instead to the world of management theory and dress it up in spiritual language as if that were the “biblical” way of being Church.  Why is this?  Has the model that Fitch upholds been tried and found wanting?  Not in my experience.  More likely it is the fact that is just plain messy and “inefficient,” and therefore doesn’t fit with the corporate approach to leadership that we’ve embraced.

The longest church name in the history of the world

This is a church that has a storefront in our neighbourhood.  The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada.   Personally I like the acronym printed on the window below, the “St. Francis N.E.S.B.F.  Archdiocese of Canada.”

It makes you wonder about this history of this group.  How on earth did they come up with that name?   At first glance it seems like they’d have something to appeal to just about every kind of Christian.

  • St. Francis – well he appeals to everyone, but especially to Catholics
  • National – that appeals to established Church types
  • Evangelical – obviously appeals to…
  • Spiritual – maybe the charismatics?
  • Baptist – of course…

Some of these things don’t normally go together, notably “St. Francis” and “Baptist,” which makes it all the more interesting.   I found a website for the church, which explains that they are a group from Trinidad.  They seem charismatic – they are also called “shouters,” and the have three hour worship services – and they mix elements of Protestant Christianity with African religion.   It’s not clear from their site exactly what that looks like.   They themselves aren’t exactly clear on their origins.

What is interesting to me about this group is that they are charismatic, but they don’t seem to downplay the significance of ritual and symbol in their faith.   Actually their website lists candles, bells, swords, flags, uniforms and a whole host of other items as significant in their worship.    Most charismatically-oriented protestants (we could expand that to include most evangelicals) are wary of any kind of ritual.  They’ve got some obviously “catholic” elements in their worship (one page on the website has prayers of the saints), but they speak in tongues and have street preaching missions.

Then again, if you know the story of St. Francis and the mendicant friars, you’ll know that these things are not so distinct from one another after all.  Francis was the ultimate charismatic.  He was also completely committed to the Catholic faith, and to the task of preaching the gospel.   Maybe the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F people are on to something.  It’s the history of division in the Church since the Reformation that has caused us to see the various terms that go into their name as being at odds with one another.   The names that we have given to our denominations are there precisely to distinguish us from the other denominations and traditions.   Our particular denominational identities then become filters for the discernment of what is good, acceptable, and true.   For example, in my tradition, if someone says something is “Wesleyan” that automatically makes it acceptable, but if it’s “Calvinist” people assume it is wrong, without even really thinking about it.  Although strong denominational identities are fading fast, most of us have been formed in communities that make these kind of distinctions all the time. “St. Francis” and “Evanglical” seem an odd pairing to a contemporary evangelical, because St. Francis is seen as a Catholic figure. But actually Francis lived during what is rightly called an “evangelical revival,” a real flowering of the gospel, which included radical forms of discipleship, self-denial, and evangelistic preaching missions.   I really don’t know much about the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F., so I wouldn’t want to hold them up as a model of anythying, but maybe the fact that they seem to have developed in obscurity has allowed them to hold these things together without worrying that they were crossing traditional boundaries.

Signs that make me laugh: “La-DI$COUNT”

The Danforth near our house is just full of interesting independent stores, restaurants, and cafes.  It’s refreshing to live in a place where big chains don’t dominate the retail space.   Sometimes it also makes for some good entertainment.

I found this one near Danforth and Woodbine.  La-DI$COUNT.

Really?  La-DI$COUNT?

Why “La” Disount?   Is that supposed to add an air of French elegance?   I’m pretty sure refinement is not what you’re looking for if you’re a person who likes to buy linens, party supplies, hardware, electronics, and jewellery all in the same store.

More importantly, why the hyphen after “La”? 

I’m also pretty sure they don’t sell the adjective “stationary” at this store.  Pretty sure they mean stationery.  Apparently “jewelry” is US spelling, so that is a bit more understandable, but still funny.  

What about the guy who made this sign?  What was he thinking?  It  makes you wonder.

Unsafe God

I was preaching on Isaiah 6 this morning and a passage from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came to mind.  It’s the part where the children find out that Aslan is a Lion, not a man. 

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” siad Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” 

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.    

  “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver.  “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”  

It got me thinking about the images of God that are popular in our culture, and if we are honest, in the Church as well. Sometimes people imagine God as an angry punisher, ready to annihilate anyone who doesn’t measure up by hurling lightning bolts down from the sky.  But I don’t think there’s much of a danger of that in our culture today.  Maybe in the middle ages, when people were fascinated with hell and purgatory, but I don’t think there are many people today who imagine God in an overly wrathful way.  I think the opposite is more likely the case.  We tend to think of God as completely tame, endlessly tolerant, and entirely safe

I think sometimes we imagine a domesticated God.  Of course domestication is a term we use in relation to animals.  We domesticate our pets.  In other words, they are house trained, so they can fit into our lives and our routines and our homes, without causing too much of an interference.  Our pet dog stays on his leash.  He stays behind the fence.  He is safe.  He brings us comfort when we need it but at the end of the day, we are the master, we are the ones in control.   We imagine a domesticated God when we think that God can be kept, safe and contained behind the fences that we have built for him. 

Another imagined God that we encounter today is a Santa Claus God.  You know Santa Claus only exists for the purpose of bringing us gifts.  That’s the sole reason for his life.  All year long everything he does is oriented to that one special night when he jumps in his sleigh and flies around the world, eating cookies and milk and making little boys and girls happy by bringing them the things they asked for.  Yes, it is true, he’s making a list and checking it twice, but it seems to me he is pretty indulgent, and bring nice gifts even to kids that you would think would be on the naughty list.  We imagine a Santa Claus God when we think that God is only there to give us what we want.   When we think that the fact that we’ve been good little boys and girls means that we should get everything we ask for. 

We could probably think of many other “imaginary Gods.”   One more that I’ve seen is the personal assistant God. A personal assistant’s role is to help their boss get through their day.  They might go for coffee, they might pay parking meters, do dry cleaning, do secretarial work – and if you are a very busy person then I can see why a personal assistant would be of great value.  Their job is to make your life easier.  Sometimes we put God into that box.  We think he is there to “help get us through our day,” whatever that means.   I heard someone once saying that they were praying to God for help because they were having a “bad hair day.”  I think they wanted a personal assistant God

These are all safe gods; they are tame, they are domesticated, they are always pleasant, friendly, and unobtrusive.  These tame gods are not the God of the Bible. They are not the God of Isaiah chapter six.   

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: 

       “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty, 

        the whole earth is full of his glory.” 

 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 

 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” 

 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 

 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” 

      And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 

Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.

The purpose of theological education

There’s a nice post from Ben Myers over at Faith & Theology on the purpose of theological education, which includes the following:

“What the church really needs is not cleverer or more relevant or more professional ministers, but women and men who know how to pray and how to bear witness. Nothing could be simpler; nothing more demanding. For true prayer and witness spring only from a life that has been formed in the way of discipleship – the way of Jesus Christ.”

What a great way of summing up the purpose of theological education.  But most people, including many who have had theological education, don’t see it this way.  Those training for ministry often struggle to integrate academic study into their faith.   I remember friends talking about this in seminary.  I’ve seen it in students that I’ve TAed for.  I’ve also heard some cadets from CFOT talk along the same lines.   Why is it that students have a hard time making the connections between the theological disciplines and the life of faith?   I think it is partly due to the fact that popular Christian culture is so ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  On the other hand, theological scholarship has gone the way of increasing specialization (along with other academic disciplines), to the point that many theologians spend most of their time communicating with a small circle of friends who are interested in the same obscure topics.  Philip Clayton recently posted a video on his website criticizing academic theology (including his own work) for this very reason. He may exaggerate a bit but the main point is valid. The kinds of discourse we encounter in our local church are so far removed from academic discourse that it becomes hard reconcile the two, so a lot people veer off in one direction or the other.   

How do we get beyond this?  Obviously there are people we could look to, say scholars who write for general audiences, like NT Wright, or pastors who put great effort into upholding theological integrity in their ministry, like David Fitch.    Students could probably put a little more effort into trying to integrate scholarship and faith, and teachers could certainly make an effort to show how theological questions are related to situations in the life of the Church.  I also think it reinforces the need for doing historical theology, and teaching doctrine from a historical perspective.   Why?  Because most of the great theologians in the history of the Church were pastors and leaders, and they wrote in response to real problems that were arising in the life of the Church as it struggled to live out its vocation in the world.  

Any other thoughts?  As an academic whose deeply concerned about strengthening the connections between scholarship and everyday Christian life, I’m open to suggestions.

Second Canadian Wesley Studies Symposium

Howard Snyder, chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary, has been trying to encourage networking among Wesleyan theologians and pastors in Canada.  A few of us got together last spring for an informal Wesley Studies symposium, and we’re trying to make it an annual event.   So if you’re interested in Wesley and you can be at Tyndale on March 23, please let me know, because we’d love to have you there.

Second Annual Wesley Studies Symposium

Tyndale Seminary, Tuesday, March 23, 2010

9:00 a.m. – 7:30 p.m

Schedule / Agenda

8:45 a.m. Coffee – Information

9:00 a.m. Welcome – Introductions – Announcements – H. Snyder

9:15-10:15 Amy Caswell: “The Story of Christian Perfection: the Perfection Narrative of George Clark and Other Friends of John Wesley”

10:15-10:30 Break

10:30-11:20 Chad Short: “John Wesley and N. T. Wright in Dialogue”

11:20-12:15 Bob Munshaw: “‘Be Thorough, But Be in Haste’: Impetus and Self-Understanding of Mission in the Early Free Methodist Church”

12:15-1:00 Lunch (Courtesy of Tyndale Seminary)

1:00-1:50 Howard Olver: “A Theology for Reaching the City”

1:50-2:30 Updates on Wesley Research (Current & Proposed)

2:30-2:45 Break

2:45-3:30 James Watson: “Social Science Methodology for Multiethnic Church Planting”

3:30-4:15 Matt McEwen: “Wesley and the Environment: A Sacramental View” (provisional title)

4:15-5:00 Resources, Programs, New Publications, Etc. – Discussion

5:00-6:00 Free Time

6:00-7:30 Dinner, Denominational Presentations